Ford workers need European unity

The harsh reality of international capitalist competition struck home yet again on Merseyside last week.

Ford announced that it intends to dismiss around one-third of the 4,300 workforce at Halewood through ‘voluntary’ redundancies. But with unemployment in Liverpool already running at 11.5% (and up to 30% in the sprawling Speke council estate, where many Ford workers live), it is unlikely there will be many takers.

The usual trick in such circumstances is for employers to offer alternative work in other parts of the country, with those refusing deemed to have dismissed themselves.

In the company’s own terms, hitting Halewood made sense. Although the Thatcherite assault on working conditions and union rights has made Britain a much more attractive place for investment than other European countries, ironically the ease not only of hiring but of firing has been an important consideration. British workers can be dismissed much more easily than their Spanish and German counterparts. However, professor Charles Bean of the London School of Economics commented that the key factors were low wages, low taxation and the “emasculation of the trade unions”.

As a result, 14,000 new UK jobs have been created in the car industry over the past six months - only Ford is cutting back. All this exposes the myth that a subdued, cooperative workforce creates job security and improved living standards in the long term. Greater flexibility for the transnationals means they can just as easily disinvest when market conditions dictate.

Another reason why Halewood has been selected for the latest assault is the much vaunted ‘strength’ of the pound. That may make investment attractive for capitalists, but it makes export of goods produced in Britain more expensive than in countries where the currency is ‘weaker’.

Fortunately Ford workers are not taking this lying down. As we go to press, most UK plants have voted to take industrial action if the company carries out its threat. Tony Woodley, the national officer of the Transport and General Workers Union, told me he expected all the mass meetings to follow the union recommendation: “British workers are not expendable.”

However, the union seems intent on trying to advise Ford what is best for the company rather than concentrating on what the workers need. Describing Ford’s move as “an issue for Britain and for job security at Halewood,” Tony Woodley added: “With 129,000 models sold in Britain we are easily the largest European market.” Although admitting that Ford was justified in its own terms, he nevertheless commented that switching production “cost billions”.

Tony continued:

“What we’d like and what we can get away with are two different things. We are saying there ought to be fair and equal investment across Europe and we must ‘share the grief’ evenly when there is overcapacity. We are not looking to play one group of workers off against another.”

However, there is no doubt that by taking the line of accepting the ‘inevitable’ - ie, workers somewhere having to suffer - for all the unions’ talk of Europe-wide cooperation, each will end up arguing why their ‘own’ workers are a special case.

We can only be the losers once we accept the whims of the market. Only by insisting that our own needs be met can we organise effectively. And today there is a crying need for that organisation to be strengthened throughout Europe. Ford did not even consult its European Works Council, where all the unions are represented, before taking its decision.

We need militant, fighting European trade unions to combat the continental organised base of the transnationals.

Peter Manson